June 8, 2011
Triple Rock Social Club
With all of the forlorn, self-seriousness pervading much of the modern music landscape these days, it was truly a treat to witness the jocular, lighthearted performances by Gruff Rhys and the Welsh quartet Y Niwl at the Triple Rock on Wednesday night. And while the songs themselves might have been buoyant and cheerful, there was a proficiency to the performance that gave clear evidence to the fact that Rhys (frontman of Super Furry Animals) has been at this for 20 years. He was charming and self-effacing throughout his generous 100-minute set, setting up his exuberant pop numbers with hysterical stories that only added to the warmth and intimacy of the sparsely attended show.
The instrumental surf-rock outfit Y Niwl opened the show with a rousing, energetic set that surely caught everyone in attendance (myself included) by surprise. Their sound was authentic and crisp, and sounded like summer, which obviously resonated with Minneapolis music fans who are finally enjoying some warmth and sunshine. The lads were all quite likable as well, introducing each song, which are just numbers, in their Welsh equivalent, but then holding up the setlist to show us that the song names are all "bilingual."
I couldn't help but jokingly shout out a request for "46," towards the end of their all-too-brief 30-minute set, to which one of the members humorously quipped: "We're only just up to '21,' we'll have to come back in a few years and play '46.'" But, for all of the Y Niwl fans out there dying to know just what the band played, they did stellar versions of "7," "21," and the spirited set closer "6." But their performance was a runaway success not because of the specific songs they played, but more the heartening mood of their music, and the fact that these young upstarts from north Wales came into a city they've probably never been in before and easily won over everyone in attendance with their catchy, infectious surf-rock sound.
With such a stellar opening set, the crowd was still in great spirits by the time Rhys took the stage. And the fact that Y Niwl is serving as his backing band on this tour certainly added to the warm response his songs received throughout their engaging performance. He began the night by telling us that one of his many quirky instruments littering the stage needed new batteries, and made a bit of a performance out of putting new ones in. But once they finally got going, the band sounded wonderful, opening with an expansive version of "Gwn Mi Wn" that found Rhys going from guitar to keyboards as the song sprawled out towards the end. He stayed on keys for a lovely version of "Candylion," before introducing a great rendition of "The Court Of King Arthur," by hilariously stating: "This song we always dedicate to any archeologists in the crowd. We've had two turn up over the last couple of shows, so we think we're finally breaking through the archeologist market."
It was that type of dry, farcical sense of humor that pervaded the entire show, only adding to the rollicking nature of most of Rhys' songs. But, lest you think this was all lighthearted claptrap, the musicianship displayed by the band was quality as well, which was made clear on a rousing version of "In A House With No Mirrors (You'll Never Get Old)," which was one of the night's many standouts. Rhys introduced the Welsh-language tracks "Pwdin Wy 1" and "Pwdin Wy 2," by telling us that pwdin is the U.S. equivalent of calling someone dumpling, and the song was about Pwdin falling in and out of love with a guy he called Mr. Minneapolis, just for the evening. Part 1 was an upbeat, bouncy song, while before Part 2 Rhys explained: "We've come to the end of the love affair between Pwdin and Mr. Minneapolis, and this captures their descent into despair and alcoholism." Needless to say, it was quite a somber number.
But most of the set was filled with sprightly pop songs, like an excellent rendition of "Sensations In The Dark," the energetic first single from Rhys' great new album Hotel Shampoo, which featured stellar work from Gruff on harmonica. They followed that up with truly lovely versions of "Vitamin K" and "Honey All Over," which was blissed-out pop at its finest. After a passionate, Western-tinged rendition of "Lonesome Words," Rhys introduced "Ni Yw Y Byd," by telling us, "This is a motivational number full of advice lyrics like 'Defy Gravity' and the like." How can you not love a song like that? And, when someone asked him what the title meant, Rhys hysterically claimed that, "It translates loosely into We Are The World."
After a bit of technical difficulties plagued the end of the set, Rhys killed some time by launching into a funny bit about his peculiar guitar: "We're going to have a brief infomercial now for this guitar paraphernalia, for people that like to play their guitars upside down." And indeed, he had a wooden piece that he affixed to his guitar so that it wouldn't look quite so weird that he was playing left-handed on an upside-down right-handed guitar. But that is the type of guy Rhys is, always setting and playing by his own rules. The main set ended with a flourish, as "Cycle Of Violence" built to a wild, cacophonous finish, while "Shark Ridden Waters" was lovely and soulful, and really found the band stretching the end out considerably as Rhys played us out on the keys.
The encore began with Rhys explaining that: "This next song starts at 30,000 feet in the air, so I'll just do a brief safety demonstration so you know what to expect." And, after pointing out a few emergency exits in the building, the band launched into an exploratory, 15-minute version of "Skylon!" which ended the night with a real spectacle. Rhys played around with many different sonic gadgets and vocal effects throughout the night (and on this song specifically), even dropping the needle on a record player on stage to add some more texture to their sound. Rhys held up many different placards during the set, with instructions like Applause! and Whoa! on them (not that we needed any help cheering). But as the wild last song finally died down, Rhys flipped over his last cue card with The End on it, bringing a fitting theatrical finish to a thoroughly entertaining evening.
Critic's Bias: I had seen Super Furry Animals once, years ago, and really didn't pay any attention to Gruff's recent solo recordings. I was pleasantly surprised with how lovely those songs are.
The Crowd: Sparse, but clearly enjoying themselves.
Overheard In The Crowd: "What did he just say?"
Random Notebook Dump: This show made me want to move to Cardiff, don a stocking cap and start busking on the street.
For More Photos: See our full slideshow by Erik Hess.
Gwn Mi Wn
The Court Of King Arthur
In A House With No Mirrors (You'll Never Get Old)
Pwdin Wy 1
Pwdin Wy 2
If We Were Words (We Would Rhyme)
Sensations In The Dark
Honey All Over
Ni Yw Y Byd
Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru
Cycle Of Violence
Shark Ridden Waters